I know a guy who’s been homeless in Seattle for nearly two decades. Most of that time, he’s slept in a parking garage. He’s coming unraveled. No surprise there. My only question is, “What took him so long?”
A crisis exists on our streets, and we’re losing ground. Our shelters are more crowded than ever, and the numbers of unsheltered homeless people are at an all time high and climbing.
This is unsurprising. The average annual income for the bottom quintile of workers in Seattle is just $14,300. And rents are rising at an alarming rate.
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Urban Affairs shows that for every $100 average increase in rent, urban homelessness rises by 15 percent.
Here lies the heart of our problem.
The “grand bargain” struck within the Mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Committee to address Seattle’s housing affordability crisis will help, but it’s not enough.
It’s not that the plan isn’t ambitious. It is. The 65 recommendations cover an enormous amount of ground.
The plan projects that 50,000 new units of housing will be built over the next 10 years and that 20,000 of these will be affordable.
With around 120,000 mostly high-earning knowledge workers predicted to move here over that same period, we’ll need all of those.
At the plan’s center is a strategy to keep Seattle affordable for those who don’t work for Amazon. Through inclusionary zoning, permission for all new development over the currently allowed heights will be linked with requirements for affordable housing units in the same area.
If developers want to maximize profits by going taller, they’ll have to build some pockets of affordability.
That’s very good.
And there’s much more. Roadblocks to market solutions, such as mother-in-law apartments, will be removed and barriers to obtaining housing, such as the felony check box on rental applications, will be challenged.
The plan includes a new housing levy that’s twice the size of the last and asks homeowners who benefit from Seattle’s red-hot housing market to share the wealth with those who struggle the most. Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t.
As a consensus document that developers and housing advocates can agree on, the hala recommendations are more than I expected. But, they lack urgency. The timeline for inclusionary zoning to become law doesn’t even begin until 2017. That’s also when the new housing levy would begin. This is a long time to wait.
The proposal is weakest where the crisis is most acute: those who earn between 0 to 30 percent of area median income (AMI). According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 62 percent of
Seattle households in this bracket pay more than half of their income in rent.
Much of the “affordable” housing generated through inclusionary zoning will be geared to people like me. The middle-class. People at 80 to 100 percent of AMI.
According to Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development, there’s actually a surplus of affordable units available to people at my income level. So long as we don’t need to live anywhere trendy or new, we’re okay.
We’re not where the crisis is.
That’s why Real Change has endorsed an alternate set of recommendations, the New Direction Housing Plan for Seattle, developed by former Tenants Union Director and HALA committee member Jon Grant and backed by Councilmembers Licata and Sawant, along with a community of housing activists such as Low Income Housing Institute’s Sharon Lee, the Seattle Displacement Coalition and the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort.
Their proposal goes much further than the consensus between developers and activists allows.
They advocate, for example, that we build 5,000 units of housing within five years that’s affordable to those under 30 percent of AMI. This would go a long way toward reducing homelessness in Seattle.
They advocate that we challenge the state ban on rent control, impose penalties on developers who flip affordable multifamily housing and institute far stronger tenant protections than HALA could ever countenance.
Their proposal would make much more of a difference to those most in need, and would do it much sooner. Their proposal has the urgency that HALA's lacks.
We get what we settle for, and the HALA recommendations simply aren’t enough.